Tuesday, 20 March 2012

No one will be denied medical treatment: Health Minister Gan Kim Yong at Post-Budget 2012 Dialogue

He pledges to keep costs manageable
By Salma Khalik, The Straits Times, 19 Mar 2012

THE Government intends to keep health-care costs manageable and nobody in need will be denied medical treatment, Health Minister Gan Kim Yong said yesterday.

His pledge, coming after his ministry announced plans recently to double its yearly health-care spending to $8 billion over the next five years, was made at a dialogue in which participants continued to express worries about health care.

Among other things, they cited their concerns over rising subsidised consultation fees at public hospitals and the prices of quality medicine.

Mr Gan said that Singaporeans can expect health-care costs to keep rising, especially if patients want better outcomes from newer technology.

'Health-care inflation usually runs ahead of normal inflation and wage increases,' he said. But the Government is trying to slow down the increase by encouraging people to stay healthy, be circumspect in their health- care expenditure and get treatment at the appropriate level.

'Use the appropriate care to keep costs down,' he said at the dialogue organised by feedback unit Reach and his ministry, and held at Ren Ci Community Hospital.

He noted that being treated at Ren Ci, for example, was less costly than at the adjoining Tan Tock Seng Hospital.

He also reiterated the three targets of his Healthcare 2020 roadmap: enhance accessibility, improve quality and assure affordability for all Singaporeans.

Mr Gan added that the extra spending on ensuring healthy ageing and ageing-in-place strategies would mean that 'going forward, seniors need not be a burden to society but can be an asset'.

Turning to Medisave, some of the participants suggested that it be used to cover more health-related costs, including diagnostics to check on diseases.

Mr Gan said that as people have more savings in Medisave, it will be freed up for more uses in the long term. But he stressed that Medisave is primarily meant for major medical costs and has to last the person's lifetime. Expanding its use must be 'carefully calibrated'.

Reiterating a point he made in Parliament during his ministry's budget debate, he said those genuinely unable to pay their medical bills can seek help from a hospital's medical social worker.

Even better-off patients faced with unusually high bills can seek help. 'Don't be shy about asking for help,' he said. For those who really need it, the aid will be extended even for follow-up outpatient treatment.

Queried on the $110 million that patients owed public hospitals, Mr Gan noted that the sum was not all bad debt as it includes bills being repaid in instalments. Some amounts are owed by patients who have died and the hospital has difficulty collecting the money from next of kin.

The arrears are actually a good sign, he said to laughter from the audience of around 120, made up of members of the public and grassroots leaders.

'It shows quite clearly that everyone who needs medical treatment will be cared for. Collection comes later.

'If indeed the Government is like what other people have said, 'everything money first' - there won't be arrears. Hospitals will say: 'Pay first, then I treat you.' So it shows hospitals have taken the right approach,' he noted.

'If you really cannot pay because of financial problems, once you are means-tested, the hospitals will help you get Medifund,' he added.

Medifund is the health safety net to help the poor who cannot afford to pay for treatment. More than $78 million was disbursed last year.

Unhealthy food was also a topic, with Minister of State for Health Amy Khor saying that limiting the amount of trans-fat in cooking oils from May next year is one key step.

Mr Gan, who said he had a bowl of mee siam earlier, added that it is up to people to keep healthy by eating right and exercising. In his case, he followed up the meal with tai chi.

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